It’s fixable: Mental Health Awareness Month

I don’t want to let Mental Health Awareness Month slip by with re-running this essay. This year I’ve added some of the more intense details that I left out of ealier versions.

One in four Americans will suffer from a mental illness during their lives. If you, like me, are part of that 25%, get help.


I am the 25% 

(originally ran in May 2012) 

At first, it was just a quirk. And kind of funny.

It began in my late 20s. Before a big weekend, I would start noticing every sniffle, and I’d worry I was getting sick. In fact, I’d worry so much that I would get sick.

I became a regular at the local emergency room, repeatedly going in because I thought I was having a heart attack. After 30 minutes of running on the stress-test treadmill in a suit and tie, they’d send me home with a clean bill of health and a pitted shirt.

I joked that I’d been to the emergency room so many times with imagined ailments that I got frequent liar miles.

Every lump was a tumor. Every bump was skin cancer. I should have made my homepage, I was checking it so often.

I flushed public toilets with my foot instead of my hand, and I used a paper towel to open the bathroom door when I was done. (To be fair: half the guys leaving the bathroom walk right past the sink, and now there are trash cans by the doors of bathrooms because everybody does it. So I was RIGHT.)

The issue even affected my play. I was the pitcher for my softball team, and constantly worrying I wouldn’t throw a strike was not helping me throw strikes. Nor did it help, by the way, when the outfielders yelled, “Throw a strike!”, as if that hadn’t occurred to me.

I found it all funny, but it was still a problem, and getting worse. Lying in bed at night obsessively contemplating my mortality was leaving me exhausted. Sitting at my desk during the day contemplating my mortality was not all that great either.

Finally, one beautiful day in May 2001, while working for Alcoa in what is now the Altria Annex building, I shut down. I got caught in a negative thought-cycle that I could not break, eventually convincing myself that, if I left my office, I would literally die. I was trapped in my office.

I called my wife, Stacy, and she came to pick me up. She (mostly) convinced me I wouldn’t die if I left my office (I wasn’t entirely convinced, but took a leap of faith), and we walked to the car and drove straight to a psychiatrist’s office. I explained the situation to the doctor, then waited for him to tell me I was insane. That I would be committed and the state would take my kids. That my life was over.

Instead, the doctor said the two most wonderful words (other than Stacy’s “I do”) that I have ever heard: “It’s fixable.”

He told me I had obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, and that I was one of millions of people with this problem. That realization alone was a huge relief. And he worked with me to fix it, through medication and therapy. My life changed forever.

People talk about the power of a positive attitude, but there are times when “positive thinking” is no match for feelings of vulnerability and stress, and cannot “fix” depression, panic, anxiety or other mental health issues. Mental illness is a physical ailment just like heart disease is a physical ailment, but we don’t tell heart patients to turn that smile upside down and snap out of it.

There are many resources in your area, professional caregivers who can help you manage and even overcome the issue, from counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists to health centers like “Friends 4 Recovery” in Chesterfield County, VA, which provides people with techniques to manage their illness, obtain and maintain their recovery.

Studies show one in four Americans will deal a mental health issue during their lives.

I am the 25%. If you ever suspect that you might be one of the 25% too, please know that help is available.

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